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A. Justification

I’m proposing this model as a model of Christian belief’s having the sorts of epistemic virtues or positive epistemic status with which we’ve been concerned: justification, rationality of both the internal and the external variety, and warrant. Justification needn’t detain us for long. There should be little doubt that Christian belief can be and probably is (deontologically) justified, and justified even for one well acquainted with Enlightenment and postmodern demurrers. If your belief is a result of the inward instigation of the Holy Spirit, it may seem obviously true, even after reflection on the various sorts of objections that have been offered. Clearly, one is then violating no intellectual obligations in accepting it. No doubt there are intellectual obligations and duties in the neighborhood; when you note that others disagree with you, for example, perhaps there is a duty to pay attention to them and to their objections, a duty to think again, reflect more deeply, consult others, look for and consider other possible 253defeaters. If you have done these things and still find the belief utterly compelling, however, you are not violating duty or obligation—especially if it seems to you, after reflection, that the teaching in question comes from God himself.

Of course some writers charge that if you have faith (as on the model) and think your belief comes from God, then you are arrogant (and hence unjustified). Among the more vivid is the theologian John Macquarrie:

The Calvinist believes that he himself, as one of the elect, has been rescued from this sea of error and that his mind has been enlightened by the Holy Spirit. However much he may insist that this is God’s doing and not his own, his claim is nevertheless one of the most arrogant that has ever been made. It is this kind of thing that has rightly earned for theology the contempt of serious men.316316   Principles of Christian Theology (New York: Charles Scribner, 1966, 1977), p. 50.

A Calvinist’s first impulse might be to retort by asking whom or what Macquarrie credits with furnishing him with the truth, when he finds himself disagreeing with the bulk of humankind on religious matters (as, of course, he does): his own cognitive prowess and native sagacity? his own self-developed penetration and perspicacity? And is that attribution less arrogant than to attribute enlightenment to the work of the Holy Spirit? Rather than pursue this unprofitable retort, however, let’s think a bit more soberly about the charge. First, note that the accusation initially seems to be brought, not necessarily against someone who actually has been enlightened by the Holy Spirit, but against someone who believes that she has. No doubt it was the Holy Spirit who was at work in the hearts of the faithful and faith-filled patriarchs and others mentioned in Hebrews 11; but presumably they didn’t know about the Holy Spirit and didn’t have any views to the effect that their beliefs were due to the activity of the Holy Spirit. So perhaps Macquarrie’s idea is that it’s all right to know something others don’t, but it’s not all right to believe that you do, attributing your knowledge to the Holy Spirit. His criticism is directed, not necessarily toward a person who accepts Christian teaching (even if in fact such a person has, as in the model, been enlightened by the Holy Spirit), but toward someone who accepts the bit of Reformed theology according to which the Holy Spirit illuminates only some of us, and thinks that she is one of those thus illuminated. And the criticism is that such a person has culpably come to think more highly of herself than she ought.


We’ll look further into this charge of arrogance in chapter 13; for now, let me just ask this. Suppose you believe that you have been favored by the Lord in a way in which some others haven’t been: does it really follow that you are arrogant? You recognize that in some respect you are better off than someone else: perhaps you have a happy marriage, or your children turn out well, or you are enjoying glowing good health while a good friend is succumbing to melanoma. And suppose you attribute at least part of the difference to God’s activity. Are you then automatically arrogant? Isn’t it rather that you would be arrogant if, instead, you thought the difference wasn’t attributable to God but was a manifestation, say, of personal strength, or virtue, or wisdom on your part? Suppose you think you know something someone else doesn’t—perhaps Macquarrie thinks that he, as opposed to his Calvinist friends, knows that the Calvinist view of faith is mistaken. Is he thereby arrogant? If not, is it that he fails to be arrogant because he does not attribute his good fortune to God, perhaps attributing it instead to his own native good sense? That hardly seem promising.

The fact is there isn’t any arrogance involved as such in recognizing that God has given you something he hasn’t (or hasn’t yet) given everyone. Human beings are, indeed, tempted to arrogance, and often succumb; still, one isn’t arrogant just by virtue of recognizing that God has given you a good thing he hasn’t (yet, anyway) given everyone else. (You might be as puzzled as anyone else that it is you who are the recipient of the gift.) Arrogance would be involved, no doubt, if you thought of this gift as your right, so that God would be unjust if he didn’t give it to you. But you’re not culpable if you believe your faith is a gift from the Lord and note that not everyone has as yet received this gift. Indeed, the right attitude here, far from a crestfallen admission that you have been arrogant in thus believing, is gratitude and thanksgiving for this wonderfully great gift.317317   See my “Ad de Vries,” The Christian Scholar’s Review 19, no. 2 (1989), pp. 171–78. Hearing of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, the apostle Thomas declared, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it” (John 20:25). Later, Jesus shows himself to Thomas, inviting him to look at the nail marks, and put his hand into his side. Thomas then believes—upon which Jesus says to him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). No doubt there is more than one point here; a central point, surely, is that those who have been given faith are indeed blessed. Their faith is a gift requiring joyful thanksgiving, not a moral lapse requiring shamefaced repentance. 255One who has faith, therefore, is (or may very well be) justified according to the model. And even apart from the model: how could you fail to be justified, within your epistemic rights, in believing what seems to you, after reflection and investigation, to be no more than the truth?

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